By Holly Willis
How long was I angry? Definitely all the way through the ’80s. There were a dozen good reasons why, and at least as many stabs at getting around that anger: drinking, prowling through the night, writing, or trying to write, and generally making a mess of things. It took a spate of films and videos by women to loosen things up, to make me even begin to feel something like whole again. Films by Su Friedrich and Barbara Hammer, videos by Joan Jonas, Lynn Hershman, and, a little later, Sadie Benning. And it was not simply stories by women for women. It was the way they were made, the scratching, scraping, scarring. The wrenching, the cutting and re-cutting, the stealing, pirating, pillaging.
It was the violence enacted on the medium itself that I loved.
Rather than fetishizing the polish of Hollywood or emulating the high sheen of video art’s mostly male canon, these works literally trash the medium they were composed within, scratching emulsion, distorting the image, wrecking the sound. Not interested in the intellectual juxtapositions of so much of the collage and montage of a broader avant-garde heritage, this work is adamantly political, fashioning scruffy, defiantly bedraggled imagery into biting commentary in and through a literal destruction and mangling of the moving image. Scratch, rip, destroy!
Take Naomi Uman’s short film Removed (1999). The filmmaker appropriated several sections of a 1970s porn film with a patently ridiculous plot: two couples fool around in two hotel rooms, which are connected by a two-way mirror. In room one, the man and woman argue, undress and have sex. In room two, the man narrates the action happening next door for his partner while pawing at her body. She twists and turns and, through gasps, asks for more details. “She’s studying her body,” her partner drolly reports, and indeed she is. And so are a bunch of us. Or we are trying to.
You see, Uman applied acetone to the emulsion, working frame by frame to etch out the writhing bodies of every woman in the film. All that remains are moaning white splotches. On occasion, there’s the flash of a nipple or an expression on a face where the bleach or nail polish missed their mark, but rather than titillating, the revelation underscores the flatness of the original, its utter banality. In contrast, the wiggly amorphous shapes shiver and shimmy defiantly, and we regard with gleeful satisfaction the damage done.
In Removed, we also contemplate Uman’s physical labor. It is impossible not to imagine her hands painstakingly doing their work, tangibly changing the texture and chemical composition of the image. Frame by frame, erasing, dissolving away the body. In her hands, the bleach becomes an unlikely salve for an enduring anger.
In a similar vein, JoAnn Elam inflicts her own kind of damage upon a piece of footage, making it vibrate with an uncomfortable flicker. Her film Lie Back and Enjoy It (1982) pairs a conversation on the soundtrack between a man and a woman discussing gender and power with black-and-white images of a woman’s face, shot from just slightly above. She looks sexy. There’s something going on, but you’re not quite sure what. In the verbal exchange, the woman argues, “You are trying to establish a power relationship here by filming and taping me,” and meanwhile, we watch the other woman onscreen, very much an object within a power dynamic. She performs a sense of pleasure, smiling coyly. In the audio conversation, the man objects to his partner’s accusation, explaining that he is merely trying to get to the truth. “I have a camera and you don’t,” he says matter-of-factly, and it is as if this simple truth is enough to stop the conversation.
It does not stop the conversation, however. Elam lets the arguing pair bounce back and forth as they try to parse how power is embedded in the image while we see evidence of that power through the way the woman onscreen is framed. Elam messes with the image, using a strobing effect, inserting intriguing intertitles and showing sprocket holes. There is no way to forget that we are watching a film as it becomes nearly uncomfortable to focus on the woman’s face through the flashing. And yet the power of the imagery is tremendous, and the pleasure in seeing her is unmistakable. Like Removed, this is a brilliant project that makes its point through a violent dismantling and disruption.
Rather than marring the emulsion or stuttering her images, Betzy Bromberg’s tactic in her 1978 film Ciao Bella is to fold things together, blending the act of filmmaking and the body such that the film becomes a means for knowing who you are in the work that you create. The film is set in the streets and interior spaces of 1970s New York, and Bromberg juxtaposes snippets of childish energy and the provocation of nearly naked women. She deftly contrasts vibrant exuberance with a sense of devastating loss, and the effect is at once brazenly personal and deeply political. One of the final shots of Ciao Bella is of a jubilant topless dancer caught in a reddish flare and sprocket holes; the picture merges the woman’s vivacious energy with film as a medium, and this is a perfect emblem for Bromberg’s work, which so often attends to the specific beauty and potential of film.
If folding names Bromberg’s tactic, for Abigail Child it’s collision that perhaps best describes her approach in the film Mercy (1989). While reminiscent of Bruce Conner’s A Movie (1958) in the sweep of found footage images that bang and clash, Child’s film goes straight for the body. Kneading hands, pulsing biceps, bare breasts, coiffed hair: you can feel these bodies. At the same time, the bodies are forced into highly coded cultural practices – wrestling, taking pictures, waterskiing, marching in parades – or they try to find a way to be at home in curiously regimented spaces, such as the assembly line and amusement park. The bodies reckon with regimes of authority, even if these are conspicuously ridiculous enactments of that authority.
With her 1992 film Chronicles of a Lying Spirit (by Kelly Gabron), filmmaker Cauleen Smith similarly skewers authority with an unorthodox autobiographical collage driven by an almost incantatory voice describing life events that cannot possibly pertain to a single person. In this way, the film cheerfully disrupts the unified self of Western philosophy, replacing the “I” with a chorus of voices and a collage of cut-out imagery and type-written texts. Together, these fragments of many lives weave a biography in flux across time and, perhaps most significantly, in relation to those who have come before the narrator, refusing clarity and coherence in favor of layering, doubling and mutability. It’s a struggle to keep up with the panoply of voices here, to make sense, to suss out the truth in the midst of the contradictions, and that’s the point: this is the celebratory and iconoclastic chronicle of a lying spirit.
Lying may or may not be an element in Greta Snider’s black-and-white short film Portland (1996), which tells the story of a group of friends who travel to Portland, Oregon, and endure a series of misadventures. It rains. They’re hungry. Their stuff gets locked up. One of them gets arrested and put on a work crew. Worst of all, a trip dedicated to drinking and partying includes no drinking or partying. The film is funny and raucous, with a kick-ass soundtrack. But what makes it for me is what I love about Snider’s work in general: an unlikely lyricism seeps through here and there. The camera swings out over the railway tracks, for example, and the lines slip into pure form for a moment. Or a door opens, blasting light and blowing the image into abstraction, a dazzle of glistening grey shapes. Or even just the narrow passage between two train cars, when the vertical and horizontal lines and the dark planes of each panel become momentarily a lovely composition in spite of the frenzy. These moments pop up in the midst of the general chaos wrought by a camera moving unapologetically with a body that’s relentlessly roaming around to see what’s what. There is no hallowed respect for the steadiness of proper cinema, and the framing is careless in the best sense. This is irreverence embodied, and that fierce defiance makes my heart sing.
The material destruction enacted by these artists shuffles notions of aesthetic value, refusing the hierarchy of polish. Better than that, the damage done to the image and sound is visceral. Each scratch, each blur, each flicker: we feel it and it feels damn good.
Holly Willis is a Research Professor in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. She is the author of Fast Forward: The Future(s) of the Cinematic Arts and New Digital Cinema: Reinventing the Moving Image, as well the editor of The New Ecology of Things, a collection of essays about ubiquitous computing. She is also the co-founder of Filmmaker Magazine dedicated to independent film and she writes frequently for diverse publications about experimental film, video and new media.